When buying groceries, you might want to squeeze the tomatoes or smell the cantaloupes, but for detergents and other staples shopping online can be tempting. And it's on the rise: Online purchases of packaged goods are expected to grow from $12 billion today to $25 billion by 2014.
We shopped for 10 products in the aisles of Internet giants Amazon.com and Walmart.com, as well as Alice.com, which sells many products directly from manufacturers and is available to consumers in all states except Alaska and Hawaii. We also priced those products at an A&P in Yonkers, N.Y., and a Walmart in White Plains, N.Y. Here's what we found:
Browsing is a cinch: Search by brand, price, special offers, and other filters. You have access to thousands of products online, from national brands to gourmet and organic items we didn't see in the grocery store. You can create a standing list of items you routinely buy. Checkout is quick—and there are no racks of candy to tempt you while you wait.
You might not find every item or brand you want at one site. And you might have to buy more than you need. For example, you might have to buy 12 cans of chicken noodle soup on Amazon.com. Alice doesn't deliver on weekends. The others do, but you can't schedule a Saturday delivery.
Walmart won. Its online service would have delivered our goods for about 22 percent less than A&P, including shipping. And that was without coupons, since Walmart doesn't accept them online. The discounter tries to offer "the same low prices online as we do in stores," a company representative told us. Walmart can adjust prices to remain competitive with local stores and online competitors, he said. At a local store, we found prices similar to those online.
Amazon was the most expensive, despite a deduction of $25 for a "promotion" and another $24 for a "super saver" discount. That was because even though shipping is free for orders of $25 and up, it can get pricey for products from independent vendors ($60 for our four third-party items). Paying $79 a year for Amazon Prime entitles you to free two-day shipping, but that doesn't apply to products from third-party sellers. Amazon says consumers can enter promotion codes, if available, to get discounts.
Alice has free shipping for six items or more; Walmart's standard shipping is free for some items but not for others. Taxes vary by state, and we didn't include them in our calculations.
Shopping online for household essentials saves time and might save money, depending on local prices. It might be especially appealing if you are homebound, have young children, live in a rural area, or live in a city without a car. To find out if you'll save money, use your latest grocery receipt and comparison-shop online.
How we did with our 10-item shopping basket.